Thursday, July 17, 2014

Broadway Baby Says Goodnight...

Sad hearts on the Rialto tonight, kids, and no mistake about that.  One of the ever-fewer number of truly Great Dames has up and left us.  Dammit.

Others will say more, and more eloquently, than could I about the force of nature that was Elaine Stritch, and there will be countless replayings of "Ladies Who Lunch," "I'm Still Here," and maybe even her breakthrough hit, "Civilization" (with its deathless lyric "Bingo bango bongo/I don't want to leave the Congo"...).  So let's instead catch her here, in antic mood, wooed by an unlikely suitor (not to mention the ex-husband of the star for whom once she understudied, the Merm herself).  It's an odd little clip, highlighting how very unsubtle an instrument the lady wielded - but in the end, nobody did it just her way.

I had the great good fortune to hear her once or twice, at concert galas and even once, treasurably, at the Carlyle.  In person, her "Ladies" was a monologue of Shakespearian proportion, thunderous, whispered, crooned, shouted and wholly, totally lived.  By contrast, to be frank, I never quite bought her "I'm Still Here."  That's the anthem of a cosmopolitan woman, world-weary, and Stritch was, oddly - despite being, among many other things a consummate survivor, a Coward protégée, and, for a while, a star on British TV - neither.  She was a Manhattan baby through-and-through (as only a little girl from Detroit could be), and forever entirely engaged with life, now.  What the hell did she care about Windsor and Wallie's affair?  She wanted to know last week's grosses at the Winter Garden, and who was going to nab that good part in next season's Albee.  She was no sleek Carlotta Campion; she was, to tell the truth, nobody but Elaine Stritch.

But that's a very great deal more than most, and, to resurrect the hoariest of clichés, we shall not see her like again.


  1. "We shall not see her like again." It may be a hoary cliché, but in the loss of Stritchy we really have witnessed the passing of a rare breed - the performer who is selected to be star of the show not because she won the applause of a braying talent-show audience, not because she had a crowd-pleasing "name" familiar from the pop charts or - forfend - a soap opera, and certainly not because she could apply a shrill coloratura key-change to a power-ballad. Stritch succeeded simply because of her sheer force of personality, in a genre of ladies presided over by The Merm, and the Misses Arthur (Bea), Ball (Lucy), Channing and their ilk. All but the latter have now gone, and heaven help us when the genre itself finally dies.

    In her own words: "I don't know what 'technique' means. But I do know what experience is."

    A huge, and remarkably upsetting, loss.


  2. I'm glad to have seen this crazy broad in both a cabaret setting and in legitimate Broadway outings. Meeting her was as fun and unsettling as you could hope. My dear friend the actress worked with her a few years back in a regional production of The Full Monty and had a few wonderful/horrifying tales to share. I believe, as you do, that we absolutely will not see her like again.

    Is it age or reality? I just don't feel like they make them like they used to. Seems that a lot of those who pass for stars today aren't cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. Or is that just "kids today" "get off my lawn" thinking from a near 50 yr old.

    Of course, with just a little thought, I can come up with the names of many current Broadway folk who DO put in the work and keep doing what they do and do it damned well. Perhaps in time they will become the next wave of Stritchs. Or has the business of show just changed too much? There are managed images/celebs now, but there were plenty of managed (and manufactured) ones back in the days of the studio system and under certain record labels.

    Are the audiences that appreciate these types of entertainers a dying breed as well? I sometimes sit with my husband in rooms where we, at 50, are the youngest by a decade or more. But other times I encounter 20-somethings who are as taken with the Stritchs, Merms, and Channings as I always was.

    1. I only realized this morning one other time I saw her - as Parthy in Show Boat. Purists griped that she was allowed to make the character sympathetic (she's supposed to be Total Termagent), but she was terrific in an ensemble part - no easy feat for such a natural ham.

      The problem today is that the stage doesn't make stars, or at least stars who stay on stage. You can't blame people like Kristen Chenowith for going to LA, but once there they're there they frequently don't land in the way they could on stage. The shows have changed, too - they're not Big Lady shows, or even really character-driven shows - they're designed to run for years, with whomever can carry a tune and the occasional summer stunt-casting (giving rise to notions like Brooke Shields as a Broadway Star. Oh, dear).

      And of course the supper clubs and cabarets have all but disappeared.

      So Stritch and her late renaissance were an outlier, and maybe the last of that particular kind that we'll see. I think there will always be fans - for Stritch, and Mercer, and of course the Merm - but we'll never see stars like them again on Mike or Dinah, central to the culture. And we're the poorer for it.

    2. I can just barely imagine her as Parthy. What/where was the production? Now I have to go search for clips.

    3. She was in the Hal Prince production of the mid-'90s, which was terrific. He played with a lot of material, bringing in bits and pieces from the original stage version, the '36 James Whale film, and various editions since. Parthy got both some extended dialogue, making the part a little larger, and a song, in the second act, that she sang to her baby grand-daughter - very touching.

    4. Thank you! Now I have some clues . . .

  3. Termagant. I'll love you to the day I die, Muscato.